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Surviving at analog TV conversion

   The conversion to digital TV won't affect a lot of people, but it seems to be generating no  small amount of confusion.

   The changeover is set to happen Feb. 17 — that is if it isn't delayed by Congress — and only a small percentage of the TV-viewing population needs to do something about it.

   To repeat: You don't have to worry if you get your television through cable or a satellite TV service.

   If you get your TV over the air, but you have a newer set with a built-in digital tuner, you're still OK.

   It's only if you get TV through an antenna on an older, analog set that you need to act.

   You can buy a new TV. You can sign up for cable or satellite service.

   Or you can buy a digital converter box for between $40 and $80.

   However, the problem is that the federal program to provide $40 coupons to cover part of the cost of a converter has run out of money.

   That means people trying to get a coupon by the Feb. 17 deadline may be out of luck.

   Concerns over the coupons and the outreach efforts meant to make sure people are prepared are prompting President-elect Barack Obama and others to call for a delay in the deadline.

   Do you think the conversion should be delayed? Have you bought and set up your converter box already?

   Did you upgrade to a new TV or cable/satellite service instead?

   What do you think of the fact that Congress is mandating this change? And do you think the concern over the conversion is being blown out of proportion?

   People have a lot of questions, too many to answer in this space, so here's a few Web sites worth checking out:

   www.dtv2009.gov and www.dtv.gov, official government sites, and www.dtvanswers.com, from the National Association of Broadcasters;

   Also, www.tvfool.com, is an interesting site for the technically inclined that answers everything from the coverage area of local stations to what direction you should point your TV antenna.

   And YouTube has an amusing video look at the conversion:


    

   — Stephen T. Watson

Electronic billboards -- nuisance or revolution?

   Call it a sign of the times.

   With more than 1,000 electronic billboards standing by busy highways around the country, the TV-like screens are becoming commonplace.

   Starting as soon as April, Lamar Outdoor Advertising plans to flip the "on" switch for five LED billboards around Western New York highways.

   With their static, non-moving images, they look much like conventional billboards. Until the picture changes and a new ad takes its place on the screen, an event that happens every eight seconds.

   The image change isn't a distraction to drivers, the industry says, but billboard critics aren't convinced. They note that major studies so far have been backed by the outdoor advertising industry.

   Not everyone thinks the technology is inevitable. Knoxville, Tenn., has put it on hold while it ponders regulations. Closer to home, Orchard Park fought a costly legal battle to keep out conventional billboards, leaving it free of electronic ones.

   Do the signs attract the eye more than a regular billboard? Or are drivers too busy snacking, texting and fiddling with the radio to notice? 

   -- Fred O. Williams

    

Can you hear me now?

   It's impossible to walk across a college campus, sit in an airport lounge or sip on a mocha latte at a coffee shop and avoid seeing thin, white cords hanging down from someone's ears.

   IPods and other brands of MP3 players are everywhere, and users spend hours listening to songs and podcasts or watching videos on them.

   Now audiologists are warning that people are spending too much time listening to the personal music players, at too high a volume, and as we say in our story, this could lead to hearing loss.

   A European Union scientific committee found that people who listen to MP3 players at a high volume for more than one hour per day each week are risking permanent hearing loss after about five years.

   This could affect between 5 to 10 percent of MP3 player owners, according to the EU report, or millions of people in this country alone.

   While an industry group and organizations that promote safe listening have launched an educational campaign, many iPod and MP3 player users don't seem to take the warnings all that seriously.

   Are you worried about the prevalence of MP3 players, particularly among high school-age or younger children?

   Have you ever walked past someone and heard the tune they're listening to on their ear buds?

   Should manufacturers of MP3 players do more to limit the maximum volume level on their devices, and should government step in if they won't?

   Or are concerns about hearing loss overblown and reminiscent of the unfounded fears that people who listened to boomboxes, or Walkmen or records on turntables would go deaf?

   --- Stephen T. Watson

Outlying communities left on wrong side of 'digital divide'

   Remember the annoying sound that dial-up Internet makes, that seemingly random and disturbing series of beeps and whistles and screeches that indicates a successful connection?

   While high-speed, always-connected broadband Internet covers most of the wired world, dial-up Internet remains more than a painful memory for large parts of rural Western New York.

   The lightly populated sections of the Southern Tier and elsewhere in upstate New York don't have reliable, low-cost access to broadband Internet.

   This puts these small towns and villages at a distinct disadvantage in the digital age, business owners, officials and tech experts told The News in recent interviews.

   Community leaders in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties say they believe they can market themselves to tech companies and telecommuters by touting their high quality of life and low cost of living.

   But, they say, relying on dial-up Internet, or costly and spotty satellite Web access, makes these communities less attractive to prospective businesses and residents.

   Cable and telecommunications companies often decline to serve these communities because they don't think they'll be able to recoup their investment.

   But community leaders are working to attract private and public support to expand broadband Web access to these rural communities.

   Can they succeed? Should the state and federal governments do more to subsidize broadband expansion into sparsely populated regions?

   And what do you think the high-tech future holds for rural sections of Western and upstate
New York?

   -- Stephen T. Watson

Non-stop talking in the friendly skies?

If you thought "Snakes on a Plane" was scary, here's another idea for a horror movie:

   "Cell Phones on a Plane."

   Cell phone use on planes in the air remains banned by two government agencies in this country. But the European Union has approved their use, and several European carriers are introducing the service this year.

   Further, several carriers are beginning to offer Internet service or electronic messaging service on planes, leaving the potential for VOIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol, Web-based phone calls someday.

   It's enough to worry people who travel frequently for business and dread sitting next to the guy discussing his latest romantic fling  or the woman relating her latest trip to the doctor.

   In interviews, frequent fliers said they'd like the ability to check e-mail, send text messages or surf the Web at 30,000 feet. But the thought of cell phone calls or VOIP calls scares them.

   Do you think cell phones should be allowed while planes are in flight, if the safety concerns can be addressed? Would you like to stay connected even when you're in the air?

   What about the Internet, or e-mail and text messaging and Instant Messaging?

   

   … Stephen T. Watson

Words of caution about using cell phones

   Seemingly every week the media carries a report on another food or consumer product that may, potentially cause cancer.

   For years, cell phones have been on the list of possible carcinogens, and last week a prominent cancer researcher added his voice to the debate over this issue. Read my story here.

   The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, received a lot of press coverage.

   Herberman admitted that there's no conclusive scientific evidence linking cell phone use to brain cancer, but he said the potential risk is serious enough that people should limit their cell phone use.

   He's urging users to hold the shortest possible conversations on their cell phones; talk on cell phones using a hands-free device or by speakerphone only; and, because young people are most at risk, make sure their children only use cell phones in an emergency.

   Cancer experts at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute and other agencies say people shouldn't overreact to this warning because the studies completed to date don't definitively link cell phones to cancer.

   So what is your reaction to this warning? Will you change how you use your cell phone in response to Herberman's advisory? Or is hard to know how seriously to take a warning like this?

   To read Herberman's warning, visit:
www.upci.upmc.edu/news/upci_news/2008/072308_celladvisory.html

   For more information from the National Cancer Institute, visit:
www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/cellphones

  -- Stephen T. Watson

Bordering on unconstitutional

   WASHINGTON - If you take your laptop, cell phone or iPod to Canada with you, you might just have to leave them at the border for further inspection when you come back.

   And that recently disclosed federal policy has set up yet another debate between civil libertarians and the federal government.

   "The policies that have been disclosed are truly alarming," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc. "Ater seeing them, I am more convinced than ever that legislation is needed to protect law-abiding Americans from this gross violation of their privacy."

   But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, in a recent USA Today commentary, said: "We cannot abandon our responsibility to inspect what enters the U.S. just because the information is on an electronic device. To do so would open a dangerous window for terrorists and criminals to exploit our borders in new and unacceptable ways."

   So who's right: Feingold or Chertoff?

   And if any of you have actually lost a laptop or an iPod or some such thing at the border, please email me at jzremski@buffnews.com.

--- Jerry Zremski

Smile!

   There's the homeowner who wanted a video surveillance camera so that he could see if his lawn service had come to cut his grass while he was out of town.

   There's the metal-fabricating company that turned to cameras because officials there noticed a spike in thefts of copper and other scrap metal.

   And there are the scores of schools, libraries, police departments and government agencies that are installing cameras in an effort to improve public safety.

   For these and many other reasons, cameras are rapidly sprouting up in this nation's public and private spaces. It's hard for the typical person to go a full day without ending up in camera range somewhere.

   Government officials, the companies that install these cameras and the customers who bought them say the cameras are a valuable crime-prevention tool.

   But privacy advocates say too many cameras are being installed with too little control over where they are, how they are used and how the recorded images are saved.

   They also point to studies that question whether cameras actually reduce crime, or whether they just displace it to the nearest unwatched corner.

   As Buffalo and other local municipalities add more cameras each year, these are key questions to consider.

   Do you see the proliferation of surveillance cameras as an invasion of your privacy? Or do you think they are reasonable and effective public-safety tools?

   --- Stephen T. Watson

Smile: You're on Google camera

   Buffalo seems ready for its close-up in Google's Street View program, which arrived in this area last month.

   The impressive program links panoramic photos to the search engine's popular Google Maps feature, a boon to anyone looking for a house, restaurant or museum.

   Users can search for a specific address, or just browse through the Buffalo region on Google Maps, and pull up photos of streets and buildings that can be rotated 360 degrees.

   Google's cameras … which automatically take photos from every angle as a Google car drives through a community … captured area landmarks, geographic features and, most likely, your house and place of employment.

   They also caught a lot of people walking around the area who didn't know their image was captured for posterity.

   Privacy advocates say Google went too far with Street View, catching photos of people as they walked into an adult book store or as they laid out in the sun in swimsuits.

   Google argues it is on safe legal footing because its cars only shoot photos from public roadways.

   However, one husband and wife from Pittsburgh did sue Google in April because they say their privacy was compromised after the company posted photos on Street View taken when a camera car drove down their street … which is a private road … and turned around in the couple's driveway.

   Does Street View go too far in intruding on our online privacy? Or is the value provided by Street View's searchable photos worth the potential loss of privacy?

   And have you found any interesting or embarrassing photos from this area on Street View?

   -- Stephen T. Watson

Made-for-video fights raise alarms

   The footage can be violent and disturbing.

   Pairs or groups of young people are shown fighting with each other. In some cases, gangs of teens brutally attack a single victim.

   The fight videos have popped up on YouTube, the video-sharing Web site, elsewhere online and in media coverage across the country.

   Two weeks ago, a video of a fight between two North Tonawanda Middle School students showed up on YouTube, bringing the national debate to this area.

   Teens have always used their fists to settle disputes, but what's new is the technology that allows people to easily record videos and share them over the Web.

   In some cases the fights were staged with the intention of recording them and posting the video on YouTube.

   Experts say the teens who do this are seeking attention, mimicking what they see on TV or in other fight videos or trying to humiliate the fight victims.

   Some may just think it's funny to do this.

   With thousands of such videos currently posted on YouTube, school and police officials wonder what can be done to stem the tide of video violence.

   Should the law be changed to make it illegal to post such videos? Should the fight participants face tougher penalties? Should YouTube be forced to screen all videos before they are posted?

   And should parents be doing more to keep their children from posting such videos?

  -- Stephen T. Watson

   

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